By the Associated Press
Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee as people slept early on Tuesday, shredding at least 140 buildings and killing at least 25 people. Authorities described painstaking efforts to find survivors in piles of rubble and wrecked basements as the death toll climbed.
A Tennessee emergency management agency spokeswoman raised the death toll on Tuesday morning, after police and fire crews spent hours pulling survivors and bodies from wrecked buildings.
One of the twisters caused severe damage across downtown Nashville, destroying the stained glass in a historic church and leaving hundreds of people homeless.
On Tuesday afternoon, Nashville’s mayor, John Cooper, declared a state of emergency for the city, which helps to free up funds for financial assistance and streamline supplies and services to those affected.
Daybreak revealed a landscape littered with blown-down walls and roofs, snapped power lines and huge broken trees, leaving city streets in gridlock. Schools, courts, transit lines, an airport and the state capitol were closed, and some damaged polling stations had to be moved only hours before Super Tuesday voting began.
“Last night was a reminder about how fragile life is,” Cooper said at a news conference.
Residents of the historic Germantown neighborhood walked around in dismay as emergency crews closed off roads. Roofs had been torn off apartment buildings, large trees were uprooted and debris littered many sidewalks. Walls were toppled, exposing living rooms and kitchens in damaged homes. Mangled power lines and broken trees came to rest on cars, streets and piles of rubble.Advertisement
The death toll grew with more people missing, the governor, Bill Lee, said.
“It is heartbreaking. We have had loss of life all across the state,” said Lee, who ordered all nonessential state workers to stay home before he surveyed the damage from a helicopter.
The tornadoes were spawned by a line of severe storms that stretched from near Montgomery, Alabama, into western Pennsylvania.
In Nashville, the tornadoes tore through areas transformed by a recent building boom. Germantown and East Nashville are two of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, with restaurants, music venues, high-end apartment complexes and rising home prices threatening to drive out longtime residents.
“The dogs started barking before the sirens went off, they knew what was coming,” said Paula Wade, of East Nashville. “Then we heard the roar … Something made me just sit straight up in bed, and something came through the window right above my head. If I hadn’t moved, I would’ve gotten a face full of glass.”
Then she looked across the street at the East End United Methodist church and said the damage broke her heart.
“It’s this beautiful Richardson Romanesque church; the bell tower is gone, the triptych widow of Jesus the Good Shepherd that they just restored and put back up a few weeks ago is gone,” she said.
One tornado reportedly stayed on the ground for about 10 miles, into Nashville’s eastern suburbs, following a path parallel to Interstate 40 and causing more damage in Mt Juliet, Lebanon, Hermitage and other communities.
“Our community has been impacted significantly,” the Mt Juliet police department tweeted. Homes were damaged and injuries were reported. “We continue to search for injured. Stay home if you can.”
Videos posted online showed what appeared to be a well-defined tornado moving quickly across the Nashville area, flashing with lightning as it ripped open living rooms and exposed kitchens to the elements. Metro Nashville police said crews were responding to about 40 building collapses.
Among them was a popular music venue that had just held an election rally for Bernie Sanders. The crowd had left shortly before the twister struck the Basement East Nashville, the Tennessean reported.
The disaster affected voting in Tennessee, one of 14 Super Tuesday states. Some polling sites in Nashville were moved, and sites across Davidson and Wilson counties were opening an hour late but still closing at the same time, the secretary of state, Tre Hargett, announced.
A reported gas leak forced an evacuation of the IMT building in Germantown, according to WSMV-TV. Dozens of people, suddenly homeless, were seen carrying their belongings through garbage-strewn streets after the tornado blew through.
Nashville Electric tweeted that four of its substations had been damaged in the tornado. Power outages were affecting more than 44,000 customers early on Tuesday, the utility company said. The outage also extended to the capitol building, forcing the cancellation of legislative meetings.
Several airplane hangars were destroyed and power lines were downed at John C Tune airport, Nashville international’s sister airport in West Nashville, where a spokeswoman, Kym Gerlock, urged people to stay away until further notice.
Schools in Nashville were closed on Tuesday. Wilson county, just east of metro Nashville, will close schools for the rest of the week.
The storm system left scattered rain in its wake. Strong cells capable of causing damage were spotted in central Alabama, eastern Tennessee and the western Carolinas. Early morning storms also damaged homes and toppled trees in rural central Alabama, where the National Weather Service reported winds up to 60mph and issued tornado warnings for at least five counties.